"We hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish state in Palestine, to be called Israel" – these were the words uttered by Jewish Agency chairman David Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv on May 14th, 1948, prompting applause and tears from the crowd gathered at the Tel Aviv Art Museum.
But, for the Palestinians, it was a catastrophe, "Al Nakba" as they call it, that resulted in the exodus of more than 700,000 Arabs, who either fled or were evicted to neighboring Arab states, as well as more than 200,000 internally displaced persons, who remained within the borders of Israel, but were unable to return to their properties once the Israeli-Arab war was over.
"The joy of the creation of the State of Israel came at the expense of the Palestinian people [sic]," said Hanna Sweid, an Israeli-Arab politician who served as a Member of the Knesset for the Hadash party from 2006 to 2015. "Hundreds of thousands have been evicted, and hundreds of Arab villages were demolished and looted," he claimed. "The village I came from, Eilabun, is just one of the examples."
In October 1948, Eilabun, a predominantly Christian village, was captured by the 12th Battalion of Israel's Golani Brigade. Following the town's surrender, the commander of the Golani troops selected a dozen residents and had them executed. The village was then looted and all property confiscated, while most of the town's residents were sent to neighboring Lebanon.
What Sweid failed to disclose in his remarks to Israel Today regarding Eilabun's capture were the underlying circumstances. Prior to Israeli troops taking the town, the Arab Liberation Army (ALA) had set up a base there and killed two Israeli soldiers. The ALA gunmen and local inhabitants of Eilabun then paraded the severed heads of the Israelis through the streets of the town. It was not common for the nascent Israeli army to target Christian towns, but what happened in Eilabun made it an exception.
Sweid also neglected to mention that in the case of Eilabun, the original inhabitants were permitted to return one year later in 1949 as part of an agreement between Israel and the Patriarch of Antioch, Archbishop Maximos V Hakim.
But even in less exceptional cases, Israel is reluctant to accept allegations like those tossed about by Sweid. The government insists that it had no official policy of expulsion targeting local Arabs in 1948. Israel's narrative is clear: Local Arabs were not expelled, but many did flee as a result of being ordered or convinced to do so by their leaders or the leaders of Arab states who wanted to make room for invading Arab armies.
"It is difficult for me to accept these claims," retorted Sweid. "While some rich Palestinians – residing predominantly in Jaffa and Haifa – did flee because they had the means to relocate to other countries, most Palestinians were forced out. But even if they did leave, I don’t understand why Israel refuses to let them come back to their property."
The reason for that is simple: the 700,000 Palestinian refugees now number some seven million people (the actual refugees and their descendants). Together with the Arabs now living in Israel — who make up some 20 percent of the population — Israel's government is concerned that the Arabs would become a majority, bringing about the end of the "Jewish" state.
But that's not the only reason. According to some historians, during the War of Independence in 1948, Arab inhabitants of Israel were promised total equality in the new state if they remained neutral. However, if they fought or fled, they'd be considered a potential threat, a fifth column. That's why to re-admit a potentially hostile bloc of millions of people at this point would be suicidal for Israel.
While Sweid understands Israel's concerns, he thinks that the failure of Israel to address the issue creates a bigger problem.
"The solution to the years-long conflict is not that complicated," he told Israel Today. "All Israel has to do is let the internally-displaced persons – those who are living in Israel and have the right to vote – go back to their lands. It will not change Israel's demographics. But if Israel continues to stick its head in sand, the problem will only grow bigger and the Nakba of the Palestinian people will never be resolved. Nor will the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," he concluded.
PHOTO: Right-wing Israeli activists hold a counter demonstration against Nakba Day protestors. Many Israelis insist that the Nakba was the result not of Israeli conquest, but of the Arabs' refusal to accept the original partition plan, which would have created a Palestinian Arab state, with Israel's blessing, more than 70 years ago. (Yossi Zeliger/FLASH90)